AUBURN, Ala. — The LSU-Auburn series over the years has been noted for games that were defined by a singular moment that settled into each program’s lore.
This one was just a mess.
There was no seismograph-rattling play, no gutsy touchdown pass in the waning seconds, no showcase performance of a Heisman Trophy-winning season, and no obscure rule brought into play with the game on the line. There wasn’t even a nearby inferno to add a dramatic background.
There were a few turnovers, a lot of penalties, some special-teams miscues and almost as valiant an effort by No. 2 LSU to keep Auburn in the game as there was by the home team.
In the end, LSU escaped Jordan-Hare Stadium, where it had lost in five of its last six visits, with a 12-10 victory in its Southeastern Conference opener Saturday night.
“We showed everyone that we can pull through at the end,” LSU linebacker Luke Muncie said, “but it also shows us that we need to be humble and continue to improve.”
At 4-0 overall, LSU gets an apparent breather against little-known Towson next Saturday in Tiger Stadium before returning to SEC play for good at Florida on Oct. 6. Auburn is 1-3 and 0-2.
“There was nothing routine about it,” LSU coach LSU Miles said. “It was our first tight game, our first competitive road game. We had a lack of poise, and we’ll address that.”
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was shaky in his first SEC start and first road start, losing two fumbles — one with LSU perched at the Auburn 2, the other at the LSU 26, breathing life into an opponent that had fallen behind 9-0 early. He completed 15 of 27 passes for 169 yards.
Spencer Ware, who had touched the ball just nine times coming into the game because of injuries, stepped in for injured Alfred Blue and spearheaded most of the limited success the offense had.
He rushed for 90 yards on 16 carries and made a key 33-yard gain on a short pass from Mettenberger late in the fourth quarter.
LSU had the 12-10 lead and faced third-and-4 at its 33. Mettenberger faked a hand-off and rolled to his right before stopping and pivoting back to his left. He tossed the ball across the field to Ware, who sidestepped linebacker Jonathan Evans and got free for a 33-yard gain to the Auburn 34 with 2:39 left in the game.
“That pretty much sealed the game, or at least got it down to the wire,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
An 11-yard run by Kenny Hilliard provided another first down, but LSU couldn’t run out the clock. On third-and-5 from the 18, Ware was stopped for a 2-yard gain and center P.J. Lonergan was called for holding. Auburn declined the penalty, which would have been LSU’s 10th, but LSU, which had used its last timeout a play earlier, was slow to send the field-goal unit on the field.
The play was rushed and Drew Alleman was wide right from 34 yards, leaving Auburn with 39 seconds a chance to win with a field goal.
“Waiting until the last second probably cost us the three points,” Miles said.
Auburn took over at its 20, but it had no timeouts and needed something crazy — even by this series’ standard — to win. Instead, on fourth-and-2 from the Auburn 37, Tharold Simon intercepted a floating pass from Kiehl Frazier and slid down after the clock had expired.
“We went in fully expecting to win, and it didn’t happen,” Chizik said. “We didn’t finish.”
Auburn was nursing a 10-9 halftime lead when Quan Bray fumbled on a punt return and Jarvis Landry recovered for LSU at the Auburn 48. A 22-yard completion from Mettenberger to Kadron Boone put LSU in field goal range, but Auburn held on third-and-2 at the 14. Alleman’s 30-yard field goal gave LSU a 12-0 lead with 5:26 left in the third quarter.
Somehow, LSU made that hold up. Onterio McCalebb, who broke loose for the decisive touchdown in Auburn’s 24-17 victory against LSU here on its way to the BCS title two years ago, got loose on the ensuing kickoff and returned to the Auburn 44. Three plays Muncie intercepted Frazier.
Auburn’s last trip into LSU territory reached the 40 early in the fourth quarter before Frazier threw an incompletion on third-and-4, leading to a punt.
Auburn was 2-for-12 on third down and failed on nine straight during one stretch.
On its first possession, LSU drove to a third-and-1 at the Auburn 2, but a botched snap to Mettenberger from Elliott Porter, who had entered the game a few plays earlier when Lonergan was shaken up, caused a fumble that Jeffrey Whitaker recovered for Auburn..
The field position still yielded points when a false-start penalty pushed Auburn back to its one and Sam Montgomery dropped Tre Mason in the end zone for a safety and a 2-0 LSU lead.
After the ensuing free kick, LSU drove 59 yards as Michael Ford rushed one yard for a touchdown and a 9-0 lead.
On a third-and-4 on LSU’s next possession, Mettenberger was sacked and fumbled again. Angelo Blackson recovered the ball for Auburn at the LSU 26 as the crowd of 86,721 came to life.
“Suddenly instead of having a different score,” Miles said, “we were in a dogfight from start to finish.”
After a 4-yard loss, Mason broke loose for a 26-yard gain and McCalebb sprinted into the end zone from there to get Auburn within 9-7. Cody Parkey’s 40-yard field goal gave Auburn a 10-9 halftime lead.
But all LSU needed was a three-point second half to snare a mundane victory in a series that usually isn’t mundane.
“We were sloppy. We had penalties. We turned the ball over,” Miles said. “We can really be a good football team, (but) we have to play better than we did tonight.”
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